Update: Maetreum of Cybele’s Quest for Tax Exemption Continues

Heather Greene —  April 27, 2014 — 23 Comments

Maetreum of Cybele is back in the news again as its battle for property tax exemption moves to the New York State Court of Appeals. After the Appellate Division of New York’s Supreme Court ruled in favor the Maetreum, the Town of Catskill sent an appeal to the state’s highest court for a final decision. In a press release Monday, the Maetreum of Cybele said:

[We have] been forced to put all our planned projects for this year on hold because the Town of Catskill has appealed our appellate level unanimous three judge win in our court case for equal treatment under the New York property tax laws.

The Maetreum of Cybele's building.

The Maetreum of Cybele’s building.

The Wild Hunt has been covering this case since its beginnings in 2009. Here is a timeline of events as they happened:

In 2007 the Maetreum of Cybele, a nonprofit religious organization, petitioned the Town of Catskill for property tax exemption. The organization was turned down after the “town lawyer, Daniel Vincelette, toured the building and issued a damning report describing a decrepit structure that stank of cat urine, lacked visible religious symbols, and operated as a crypto-housing project” (Watershed Post, May 8, 2010,)

In 2009 the Maetreum filed a grievance with the town’s Board of Assessment Review claiming “religious discrimination.” The Board upheld the tax assessor’s denial leading to the Maetreum filing a lawsuit with the state Supreme Court in Greene County. In a letter to the Wild Hunt Rev. Cathryn Platine and Rev. Viktoria Whittaker wrote:

We own real property and run a brick-and-mortar establishment in the Town of Catskill in Greene County, New York. Our property consists of a historic former Catskill Inn called Central House and approximately 3+ acres of land with an outdoor Temple/Grove in the hamlet of Palenville. We purchased the property 2002 and turned it into a Pagan Temple and Convent … The Town of Catskill has continued to deny our exemption to this day in open violation of New York tax law which mandates the property tax exemption for religious and charitable organizations

In 2010 the case, Maetreum of Cybele versus the Town of Catskill, went to court where it lingered for over a year. During that time the Town repeatedly petitioned to have the case dismissed and attempted to foreclose on the organization’s property. In May the Maetreum issued a press release saying:

The attorney for the Town admitted in court, on the record that the real reason for the denials of our property tax exemption … was to prevent “opening the floodgates to similar groups.” This is an open admission of discrimination. At this point, every single ruling by the Judge has been in our favor and we anticipate eventual victory.

In 2011 that victory came. The Maetreum received a “court ordered stay from all foreclosure proceedings until the resolution of its legal actions against the Town of Catskill.” Judge George P. Pulver Jr. of the state Supreme Court in Greene County ruled in favor of the Maetreum. The case garnered national attention through an article printed in The New York Times.

Rev. Mother Cathryn Platine from the Maetreum of Cybele. Photo by Jo Agopovich.

Rev. Mother Cathryn Platine from the Maetreum of Cybele. Photo by Jo Agopovich.

Shortly after Pulver’s ruling, the Maetreum petitioned the Town’s Board of Assessment Review once again. Just as before the request was denied. By December the case was back in court.

In 2012 Supreme Court Judge Richard Platkin reversed Pulver’s decision and ruled in favor of the Town stating:

The Court has no reason to doubt the sincerity of the religions and spiritual beliefs of the adherents of the Cybaline Revival who testified in these proceedings. But regardless of the sincerity of these beliefs and the importance that Cybaline Revival doctrine may attach to the property and its religious use … the Court finds that the property’s principal and predominant use at relevant times was residential, rather than religion, in nature.

By the time of the ruling, both parties had invested large sums of money in fighting the case. Neither the town nor Rev. Platine had any plans of backing down. According to a 2011 Daily Mail article, acting Catskill Town Supervisor Patrick Walsh said that “the town was already too deep into the case to give up and that significant dollars could be saved by preventing exemptions for illegitimate religions.”

In 2013 the Maetreum of Cybele filed an appeal with the Appellate Division of the state’s Supreme Court. On Nov. 21 a three-judge panel ruled in favor of the Maetreum stating:

Considering the testimony, [the Maetreum of Cybele] met its burden to demonstrate that it uses the property primarily for its religious and charitable purposes.

This legal victory was a watershed event for the Pagan community. Once again the story made national news. This time it was in Forbes Magazine. After the ruling, the Maetreum of Cybele released a statement thanking everyone who had contributed to their fundraising efforts saying, “It is truly a win for all minority religions setting forth the standard that we Pagans are to be treated in law the same as the so called mainstream religions.”

Catskill NY [Photo Credit: Doug Kerr, CC lic. Wikipedia Commons]

Catskill NY [Photo Credit: Doug Kerr, Flickr]

Despite the victory, the year 2013 wasn’t without its problems. Twice that fall the Maetreum building fell victim to vandals. As described by Rev. Platine, that September a young man hurled rocks at the building while screaming “anti-LGBT slurs, swearing and taunting [them with] anti-Pagan slurs.” Then in December rocks were once again thrown at the building causing more exterior damage. The local police called the incidents “criminal mischief.”

At the start of 2014, the Town of Catskill filed an appeal with the New York State Court of Appeals. According to the Watershed Post, this court only hears a very small percentage of the presented cases. In 2012 that number was 6.4 percent. Therefore “the court’s decision to accept the [Town’s] appeal came as a surprise to Deborah Schneer, the lawyer for the Maetreum.”

Now in its seventh year, the case sits in the hands of the Court of Appeals. The Maetreum of Cybele stated:

The chairman of the Board of Catskill once vowed they would never give up their fight against what he called an illegitimate religion and Catskill is keeping that promise by appealing our victory to the highest court in New York once again forcing us to raise a large amount of money for a legal defense.

The Maetreum of Cybele is currently collecting funds for the next phase in their ongoing battle with the Town of Catskill. According to its Monday press release, the organization needs to raise $15,000 to cover all its new legal expenses. The Maetreum adds, “Our appellate level win made Forbes magazine as a significant victory for minority religious rights, don’t let Catskill spend us out of this major win.”

The Appeals Court isn’t expected to issue a ruling until the fall.  We will continue to follow and report on the case as it progresses.

Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.
  • Artor

    I hope this is resolved soon. The Maetreum would benefit greatly from an award of court costs, and the ignorant bigots of Catskill need a hard smackdown to make them understand their Constitutional responsibilities, since they seem so hell-bent on misunderstanding them.

  • What Catskill is striving so hard to not understand is that the very residency of the priestesses is itself a religious practice and use of the building. The people in charge there who are spending their taxpayers’ money bullying a minority religious institution really need to learn to look outside their own narrow definition of “religious use.”

  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    Has the appellate panel been assigned yet?

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    As a long-time city hall watchdog I wonder if the Board’s waste of town resources could become a political issue in the next election. The Maetreum is defending its religion; what’s the Board’s excuse?

  • NeoWayland

    Mostly tax exempt status is used by governments to ride herd on churches and non-profit groups. “We’ll give tax exempt status, but you have to be quiet when it comes to politics. And by the way, you’ll need to report all members, donors, and donations so we can keep track.”

    I find that amazing considering the history of churches, free speech, and civil rights in the U.S.

    Of course that doesn’t help in this situation. But the city in this case is doing exactly as the Federal and many state governments have done.

    • Hecate_Demetersdatter

      Do you have a citation for the requirement to report members, donors, and donations? Thanks!

      • RevEllen

        The Maetreum should be filing an IRS form 990. Schedule B lists donors that contribute in excess of $5k depending on the rule that applies to them. But not every donor is reported. I work for a non-profit and have experience with this.

        • Cathryn Platine

          we are exempt as a church from filing the 990 but I file the 990 postcard every year anyway.

          • RevEllen

            I should have further qualified my statement. Forgive me. Not all non-profits need to fill out the full 990. Only those NPO’s that qualify for a full 990 disclose their highest donors according to the rule that applies to them.

      • NeoWayland

        My specific information is a bit out of date, but the NPOs I worked with tried to satisfy the Federal requirements before even applying for state recognition, even though one of the Fed requirements was that the group had to be recognized by the state they operated in.

        The Federal rules are, umm, shall we say, remarkably elastic in one direction, especially if religion is involved.

        And remember, it’s the IRS who effectively decides if you are a valid religion or charity.

        • Cathryn Platine

          And the Maetreum of Cybele owns the property, is incorporated under NY Religious Incorporation Law and is fully IRS recognized as both a church and religious charity under 501(c)(3)

          • Franklin_Evans

            The lesson is that we comply with the laws and regulations with due diligence to protect us from those who want to circumvent them, to have due process as our recourse. The law does not guarantee our goals, it just gives us tools to facilitate them. It should be repeated often: your circumstances and the integrity with which you deal with them are a model which we should all honor.

          • NeoWayland

            I sincerely hope it stays that way.

        • Franklin_Evans

          It can seem a picked nit to some, but from my professional experience dealing with IRS regs it is an implied pejorative to phrase that “the IRS [] effecitvely decides…” anything. Non-profit status is a tax status having nothing to do with the validity of anything other than determining tax liability.

          This is the objective issue with the town of Catskill, the collection of tax revenues. The subjective issue is the use of governmental authority by individuals motivated by personal beliefs. Conflating the two mostly serves to cloud the actual issues.

          • NeoWayland

            Of course the IRS decides. That’s why it’s not automatic.

            If you call your organization a church or a charity and you do not have tax exempt status, most Americans don’t think you are “real” no matter what work is being done or the group’s track record.

            And we won’t discuss what happens when without notification the tax exempt status is revoked either automatically or manually by senior agents.

            I absolutely agree that in this case it’s abuse of power. I’m also trying to say that it can happen at any level of government unexpectedly.

  • Anne Hatzakis

    Wendi Wilkerson, author of “Walkin With the Gods” is donating some of her book royalties to funding their defense. Lulu.com carries the title

  • breezyrainstorm

    its an awful lot of money to raise. I hope every one will find it in hearts to at least mail 1$ or 5$ even. More if you can afford and feel it in your heart. If they don’t raise the lawyers fees it could be bad for freedom of religion for all of us. I shutter at what could happen for the greater community if this is not raised. Other places could use this as reference to not allow us to have a congregation. Even if your fine as a solitary now you may someday want to be in a community of friends and have legal rights to worship freely.

    • Cathryn Platine

      Donations can be made via paypal to centralhouse@gallae. com or snail mail to:
      Maetreum of Cybele
      3312 Route 23A
      Palenville, NY 12463

  • Jo Agopovich

    Not trying to be a bug here, and while I have no problem with you using one of my photos( I did put them up for public use) but could I get a photo credit please? Thanks 🙂
    Jo Agopovich

    • Jo Agopovich

      It is the photo from last years Harvest Moot group ritual.

    • Of course, our apologies. We incorrectly assumed the photo belonged to Cathryn. We will attach proper attribution immediately.

  • Viktoria Whittaker

    This is an excellent and very thorough article and kudos to the author. However, there is one small but important point I would like to add. We did get a tax exemption in 2006, and then it was taken away in 2007. Which only makes this all the more egregious. Otherwise, this is certainly the most thorough and complete article I’ve seen on the case to date, and I very much thank the Wild Hunt for staying with our story all these years!

    • Thank you for the added fact. I will amend the article to include that data. It is an important point.